HOUSTON — The New England Patriots have Adam Vinatieri’s foot to thank for a Super Bowl victory.
Vinatieri gave New England its second NFL championship in three seasons with a 41-yard field goal with 4 seconds left for a thrilling 32-29 victory against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday night.
Vinatieri earlier missed a field goal and had another blocked. But as he did in 2002, when he kicked the winning field goal to beat St. Louis on the final play of the Super Bowl, he proved he is perhaps the NFL’s best clutch kicker.
For a contest that started scoreless for a record 27 minutes, this game was one of the all-time offensive shows between two of the NFL’s best defenses.
There were 37 points scored in the fourth quarter alone and Tom Brady, who led New England on its winning drive, was 32-of-48 for 354 yards and three touchdowns.
Brady was voted the game’s MVP for the second time in three seasons, although he did throw an interception that prevented New England from winning more easily.
“There have been some heart attacks, but they’ve come out on top,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, whose team won its 15th straight game.
Carolina had tied the game at 29 with its third fourth-quarter touchdown on a 12-yard pass from Jake Delhomme to Ricky Proehl with 1:08 left. Then John Kasay kicked the ball out of bounds to give New England field position at its own 40.
Brady moved the Patriots 37 yards in six plays, hitting Deion Branch to set up Vinatieri’s winning kick.
“I looked up and it was going right down the middle,” he said.
The kick prevented the Super Bowl from going into overtime for the first time ever.
The Patriots led 14-10 at the half, and after a scoreless third quarter, they made it 21-10 on the second play of the fourth on a 2-yard run by Antowain Smith. It capped an eight-play, 71-yard drive featuring a 33-yard pass from Brady to tight end Daniel Graham.
Carolina wasn’t about to give up, though, scoring on DeShaun Foster’s 33-yard run on a six-play, 81-yard drive. But the 2-point conversion pass was behind Muhsin Muhammad and it was 21-16. The decision to go for 2 would come back to haunt coach John Fox.
The Patriots seemed ready to put the game away when they got the ball back, but Brady made a rare mistake, throwing an off-balance pass that Reggie Howard intercepted in the end zone.
Two plays later, Delhomme found Muhammad behind the New England defense for an 85-yard score, the longest play from scrimmage in Super Bowl history, to give the Panthers a 22-21 lead with 6:53 left. Fox again went for the 2-point conversion and failed.
Brady came back with the touchdown pass to linebacker Mike Vrabel with 2:51 remaining, and Kevin Faulk ran in for the 2-point conversion to give New England a 29-22 lead.
About two minutes later, Delhomme and Proehl hooked up to tie the game, setting up Vinatieri’s heroics.
The teams got going with 24 points in the final 3:05 of the first half that left the Patriots with a 14-10 lead.
New England dominated that dormant period and finally took a 7-0 lead on the first of two 5-yard touchdown passes by Brady. The quarterback found Branch after Vrabel had sacked Delhomme, forcing a
fumble and giving New England the ball at the Carolina 20.
At that point, New England had outgained Carolina 125 yards to minus-7, and Delhomme was 1-of-9 for 1 yard and had been sacked three times.
But the Patriots’ touchdown seemed to wake up the Panthers. Delhomme led Carolina on a 95-yard drive, tied for second longest in Super Bowl history, capping it with a 39-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith, who beat Tyrone Poole in single coverage. That tied it at 7-7 with 1:14 left in the half.
Brady came right back, hitting Branch for 52 yards behind Ricky Manning Jr. to set up the second 5-yard touchdown pass, this time to Givens.
Carolina wasn’t finished, either.
Vinatieri squibbed the kickoff and Kris Mangum returned it 12 yards to his own 47. With 12 seconds and a timeout left, the Panthers crossed up the Patriots by handing the ball to Stephen Davis, who rushed 21 yards to the New England 32.
After a timeout, Kasay kicked a 50-yard field goal to close the half.
New England looked as if it might get off to a quick start, shutting down the Panthers on their first possession, then moving to the Carolina 13 after Troy Brown’s 28-yard punt return.
But Vinatieri’s 31-yard field-goal attempt was wide right. It was only the third time he had missed indoors in 34 attempts, all of them in Houston.
The Patriots continued to keep the Panthers backed up.
Carolina got its first first down with just over 2 minutes left in the first quarter on a holding penalty on New England’s Ty Law but had to punt three plays later. Carolina’s defense held up its end. Will Witherspoon ended another Patriots threat by dumping Brown for a 10-yard loss on a reverse to take New England out of field-goal range.
With just under 9 inutes left in the second quarter, the Patriots reached the Carolina 38. Brady’s third-down sneak was barely stopped, then Antowain Smith barely got the 6 inches on fourth down, a spot that was upheld on replay.
The Patriots reached the 18, but Vinatieri’s 36-yard attempt was blocked by Shane Burton.
Three plays later, Vrabel stripped Delhomme and Richard Seymour recovered.
On third-and-7, Brady, the self-described “slowest quarterback in the league,” scrambled up the middle to the 5. On the next play, he found Branch in the end zone for the game’s first score.